An article appeared last month brilliant in its combination of simplicity and wisdom. We found it shared and re-shared on social media, and were struck by the intelligence and clarity the author used in simplifying such a large and pervasive problem in so many peoples’ lives.
“The 7 Habits of Chronically Unhappy People” by Tamara Star, a popular speaker and writer, has been featured on a number of sites and blogs since, getting well-deserved attention and hopefully opening eyes and spreading insight. If you’ve not yet read it, you should. To summarize, Star’s 7 Habits are:
1. Your default belief is that life is hard.
2. You believe most people can't be trusted.
3. You concentrate on what's wrong in this world versus what's right.
4. You compare yourself to others and harbor jealousy.
5. You strive to control your life.
6. You consider your future with worry and fear.
7. You fill your conversations with gossip and complaints.
These made an impression on us in another important way, too. Their universality applies to people from all walks of life, certainly across all professions, but we saw in them a clear explanation of why so many police officers are cynical and unhappy. That they reinforce and reiterate so much of what we've written about, in a simple, easy-to-digest format, is a plus.
And so, with a gracious tip of the hat to Ms Star, we've adapted her list to the…
The 7 Habits of Chronically Unhappy Cops
Believing that life is hard
According to Star, “Unhappy people see themselves as victims of life and stay stuck in the ‘look what happened to me’ attitude versus finding a way through and out the other side.” The default for some, mainly because it’s easier than accepting personal responsibility to confront or digging oneself out of the problems they face, is to simply embrace a sort of modernist fatalism.
True adherents of the philosophy might at least be admired for their stoicism, but that’s really not a trait of the “Life is Hard” crowd, is it? In truth they’re unhappy but weighed down by ennui or fear; it’s easier than trying, though.
We all know these officers. Stuck in a rut they hate but refuse to escape, never disappointed for they never aspire, and blaming it all on the inevitability of their own mediocrity. Life is something that happens to them, and if it’s hard and they’re unhappy, well, what are you gonna do?
Believing most people can't be trusted
Healthy cynicism and a keen sense of the evil mankind is capable of is critical to a police officer’s success and survival. It’s when no one is trusted, no one receives the benefit of any doubt, and the bar to trustworthiness is set so high virtually no one can be deemed “safe” that cynicism has gone too far, and the officer’s relational world suffers.
All but the rarest of us are social creatures, needing human companionship and, yes, trusting relationships to feel fulfilled. What happens with far too many cops is this: Having immersed themselves in a world where people cheat, rob, mistreat, and sometimes grievously hurt or kill each other as a matter of course, the officer sees nothing else. Everyone is a threat, working an angle, or bound to disappoint. Unable to relax, seeing danger around every corner, and shrinking from most social contact is a dangerous, sad, unhappy place to be.
Happy people – and happy cops – are not oblivious but they are willing to risk. And sure, people disappoint but, if the hurt is not too great, they can be forgiven.
Concentrating on what's wrong in this world versus what's right
Unhappy cops see crime rates growing out-of-control in an increasingly violent world at home, and global threats beyond our shores jeopardizing our very survival as a nation and species. They see kids and young adults as more disrespectful and less well-educated than ever before and, even if we’re not all murdered in the streets or taken out by Al Qaida, ISIS, or the next great evil from across the sea, they will surely run our nation and world into the ground and leave us soon-to-be geezers munching on the generic cat food at our fourth-rate retirement homes.
Happy cops enjoy a sense of perspective!
They know crime rates are actually at historic lows, and especially violent crimes (though the still violent are truly and remarkably violent!). The world has always faced the dangers of the mad and ambitious, but when was the last time you considered nuclear annihilation a real possibility (sure, it’s still possible but would be a really terrible business decision; computer viruses are as likely to be the weapon of choice the next time a couple major powers tangle). And although they are more than a little sheltered and far from perfect, kids today are scary smart. Trust them in the long haul (but definitely keep an eye on ‘em!). And just look at the wealth of technology and knowledge we have at our fingertips. Overall, we’re probably going to be just fine.
Comparing themselves to others and harboring jealousy
Star points out “Unhappy people believe someone else's good fortune steals from their own. They believe there's not enough goodness to go around and constantly compare yours against theirs. This leads to jealousy and resentment.”
Look around your department at the cops harboring resentment and jealousy. Who complains about assignments they’ve never gotten, counts the favors that have gone to others, and derides the successes of others, attributing them to “ass-kissing,” “sleeping her way to the top,” or mere luck? How happy are those officers? Jealousy masks great disappointment.
Striving to control their lives
In contrast to the fatalism of those in the “Life is Hard” camp, another subset is the hyper-driven, Type A+++ cop. Refusing to yield any control, relax, or place trust in anyone else, these buzzing high-tension wires in human form place tremendous pressure on themselves to find perfection.
Trouble is, finding perfection is exhausting… and impossible. Perfectionists are rarely happy and, even if they capture a fleeting moment, it can’t last and the cycle begins anew.
Occasionally letting go of control is freeing. Allowing for imperfection broadens horizons. Being “good enough” in some things, or even being willing to not be good at all, makes for a much more interesting world.
Considering the future with worry and fear
All of us experience fear and worry, and appropriate fear is important for cops who’d like to come out the back end of a 20-30 year career more or less intact. When fear permeates everything, becoming paralyzing or occupying far too much of our time and mental energy, it’s become too much.
Cops need to visualize what they fear, and then mentally rehearse to overcome it. This is healthy. So is knowing what could happen in any given situation and building confidence to meet the challenge. Seeing only what could go wrong, however, and losing sight of the fact that it almost certainly won’t, is a recipe for unhappiness. Expect the expected, while being prepared for the unexpected, is a better approach, and one more likely to make keep you happy.
Filling their conversations with gossip and complaints
Star wrote, “Unhappy people like to live in the past. What's happened to them and life's hardships are their conversation of choice… Happy people live in the now and dream about the future. You can feel their positive vibe from across the room. They're excited about something they're working on, grateful for what they have and dreaming about the possibilities of life.”
We’ve heard it said “it’s a cop’s prerogative to bitch,” and it sometimes seems most of us are taking full advantage of the entitlement. The problem, however, is that it gets old pretty quick, and venting is really less about “blowing off steam” and does little more than accentuate and reinforce negativity.
We all have plenty of genuine gripes, and sometimes voicing them is an impetus to seeking help and finding solutions. We need to know which battles to fight and what to let go, however. Happiness is found in both letting go and focusing on thoughts and words that are hopeful and forward moving.
Happiness is not only reflected in the habits, actions, thoughts, beliefs, and words you choose, but positively influenced by them. Identify the habits of unhappy cops in yourself today, and see if consciously and deliberately replacing them doesn’t make a huge difference.